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Sakonnet Bridge toll structure may get second life with transportation proposal

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Part of the short-lived toll collection system used on the Sakonnet River Bridge could soon become a hand-me-down.

The head of the R.I. Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) said Thursday the large metal structure that once held the cameras and sensors used to collect tolls on the East Bay bridge could be repurposed elsewhere in the state if a new transportation funding plan is approved.

Buddy Croft, the executive director of RITBA, said the large metal gantry on the Sakonnet is still in place and he is in discussions with the R.I. Department of Transportation about reusing it to implement Gov. Gina Raimondo’s “RhodeWorks” proposal.

“I had discussions with the Department of Transportation where we are hopeful the [request for proposal] will contain a clause that whoever gets a contract would look to repurpose the gantry over the Sakonnet,” said Croft.

On Wednesday Raimondo and other state officials announced a $4.8 billion public-works program to repair the state’s roads and bridges, including a proposal to borrow $700 million and pay the money back by tolling large commercial trucks.

RIDOT Director Peter Alviti said his agency would likely outsource the operation of 17 to 20 toll collection systems – located on almost every major highway in the state – to a private company. The state would put the project out to bid if approved by lawmakers.

Croft said it cost $2.1 million to install the gantry alone on the Sakonnet, but removal of the cameras and sensors came at a minimal cost because RITBA staff did the job. Last year a turnpike spokesperson said it cost $4 million for the complete construction of the electronic tolling system.

In the summer of 2013 RITBA began electronically collecting tolls from all vehicles crossing the Sakonnet River Bridge. Less than a year later, in June 2014, the General Assembly pulled an about-face and axed the tolls in the face of public opposition.

Initially RITBA management thought the agency would have to pay a $1 million cancellation fee to the company hired to collect tolls, but Croft said they renegotiated the terms of the contract to avoid the payment, paying the company roughly $100,000 plus a certain percentage of toll violations per month. Croft said the agency plans on moving collection operations in-house by September 2016.

He said it’s unclear if RITBA will be able to recoup any money if the gantry gets reused as part of RhodeWorks.

Croft said he isn’t feeling any “sour grapes” now that the state is proposing to start tolling again after the controversy that surrounded the Sakonnet plan.

“I think the [RhodeWorkds] plan is bold,” Croft said. “I think we as a state need to make every effort to properly plan for the future and most importantly to pay for our crumbling infrastructure.”

Croft said the agency never considered tolling large commercial trucks to fund the four bridges it controls: the Sakonnet, the Newport Pell, the Jamestown Verrazano and the Mount Hope.

Passenger and commercial vehicles do pay a toll on the Newport Pell Bridge.

Asked if the agency was considering a similar plan to what the state is proposing, Croft said: “I don’t see that as an option.” Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter: @TimWhiteRI

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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